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MSNBC’s ‘Hubris’ Documentary: Overlooking the Role of Media in Selling the Iraq War

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A documentary, “Hubris: Selling the Iraq War,” aired on MSNBC to mark the tenth-anniversary of the selling of the Iraq War by President George W. Bush’s administration. For someone unaware of the extent to which President Bush and neoconservatives in his administration went to manufacture the case for going to war in Iraq, the documentary is a fairly good presentation of much of the deception and manipulation that occurred.

Narrated by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, the documentary, based off reporting by NBC correspondent Michael Isikoff and MSNBC contributor David Corn, highlights how Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State, pushed a “top aide” to find information linking Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden. Dick Cheney went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and cited a false report of 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta meeting an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. The CIA had Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi rendered to Egypt, where he was tortured, and coughed up a story about Hussein developing chemical and biological weapons, which Condoleezza Rice went on PBS’s “Newshour with Jim Lehrer” to share with the American people. They cited evidence that Iraq built “a mobile biological weapons capability to avoid detection by the US and its allies,” which came from a sole source, Curveball, who was lying and known within the CIA to be a fabricator.

The “new revelations” it contains come from “newly declassified talking points and handwritten notes from November 2001.” They show then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s team tried to find the most compelling reason to justify war.

By late November, Rumsfeld was meeting with Gen. Tommy Franks, Centcom commander, to plot the “decapitation” of the Iraqi government, according to the now declassified talking points agenda from the sessions (shown on television for the first time in the documentary). The talking points suggest that Rumsfeld and his team were grappling with a tricky issue: “How [to] start?” the war. In other words, what would the pretext be? Various scenarios were outlined: “US discovers Saddam connection to Sept. 11 attack or to anthrax attacks?” reads one of them. “Dispute over WMD inspections?” reads another. “Start now thinking about inspection demands.”

Neoconservatives, like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis Libby and Richard Perle, are known to have signed on to a Project for the New American Century (PNAC) charter and aligned themselves to promote a war in Iraq, along with a global war on terrorism. This neoconservative think tank was the first in 1998 to call for Washington to pursue “regime change” in Iraq “in conjunction with the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi, who would later play a key role in the propaganda campaign against Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.” PNAC is not mentioned in the documentary (though a letter the group sent to President Clinton calling for “regime change” is mentioned).

In the documentary, the administration’s conscious selling of “The Product”—the case for war—began to be peddled with certainty on August 26, 2002. At a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Cheney declared, “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction (WMD). There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us. And there is no doubt that his aggressive regional ambitions will lead him into future confrontations with his neighbors — confrontations that will involve both the weapons he has today, and the ones he will continue to develop with his oil wealth.

General Anthony Zinni, former CENTCOM commander, says, “I couldn’t believe the vice president was saying this.” Having done work with the CIA on Iraq WMD, he had not seen “one piece of credible evidence that there was an ongoing program.” That’s when it became clear they were serious and were going to go to war in Iraq.

The program highlights the fabrication of intelligence around aluminum tubes and how the administration leaked “disputed findings” to the New York Times in September 2002 and the newspaper ran the story, which gave Cheney the ability to go on “Meet the Press” and hype this story. It outlines how the story of a yellow cake purchase between Iraq and Niger was concocted. Ambassador Joseph Wilson went to Niger to investigate and could not find evidence.

Rice went on CNN to say, “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapon. But we don`t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Bush used a sleight of hand in his 2003 “State of the Union address, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” [*Wilson published an op-ed on July in the New York Times that rebutted the administration and, subsequently, officials in the Bush administration retaliated and his wife, Valerie Plame, had her identity as a CIA agent leaked to the press.]

Secretary of State Colin Powell was tasked with selling the war to the world at the United Nations and did on February 5, 2003. In the documentary, Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Powell’s chief of staff, recalls a moment prior to this when Powell walked into his office. “Without so much as a fare thee well, he walked over to the window and said I wonder what will happen when we put 500,000 troops into the Iraq and come the country from one end to the other and find nothing.” Powell turned around and walked out and Wilkerson jotted this down on his calendar because he thought it was a “profound statement.”

“Though neither Powell nor anyone else in the State Department team intentionally lied, we did participate in a hoax,” Wilkerson concludes in the documentary. Particularly, during his presentation, Powell showed vials of white powder and used intelligence from Curveball. They did not know US intelligence personnel had never interrogated this source.


What is clear from the documentary is key aspects of the “hoax” would not have become conventional wisdom for going to war if news media had not consciously participated in reporting propaganda coming from the Bush administration on Iraq without question.  It would not have been as easy to sell the “hoax” if outlets like MSNBC had not had segments highlighting the “anti-Americanism” of leaders in Iraq denying they were involved in the development of WMD. And it would not have been sold to the American people as well as it was if news shows had not been so derisive and sneering toward critics.

Isikoff says in the documentary, “There is no question the news media didn`t do its job during the run-up to the Iraq War. Far too often, the press simply accepted these sweeping assertions by the highest officials in the government, without looking for the hard evidence to support it.” The documentary does not specifically address how the administration was consciously using news programs.

Between August 20, 2002, and the start of the Iraq War on March 19, 2003, Gen. Barry McCaffrey appeared on NBC, CNBC or MSNBC to offer comments on Iraq more than 140 times. He was on MSNBC at least 75 times. McCaffrey was one of 75 military analysts that the New York Times exposed as participants in a Pentagon propaganda campaign. As described in the exposé, “The campaign, begun in 2002 but suspended after the article’s publication, sought to transform the analysts into “surrogates” and “message force multipliers” for the Bush administration, records show. The analysts, many with military industry ties, were wooed in private briefings, showered with talking points and escorted on tours of Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”

The conversation on cable news programs stigmatized opposition. MSNBC host Chris Matthews used his program, “Hardball,” to highlight European opposition to going to war in Iraq. He was constantly asking guests to explain their anti-Americanism. On February 6, 2003, one day after Powell did his presentation at the UN, he asked Sen. John Edwards about the French:

MATTHEWS: How would you encourage the countries of France, I don’t mean the governments because Chirac could be doing anything. We don’t know what his motives are. Why do the polls show in Spain, in all the countries, even the ones who’ve signed the letter supporting the president’s position, why all over Europe and most of the world they think we’re the one causing this fight. That the Iraqi — we’re the more dangerous country. How did that happen? Is that Bush’s fault, the perception that we’re Goliath and Iraq is David, and we’re the bad guys? Whose fault is that or is it the policy’s fault?

Matthews, as New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman reported, wanted MSNBC host Phil Donahue to be fired. “Executives expressed increasing unease about his vocal opposition to the looming war in Iraq.” Matthews was upset that “significant resources” were being put into Donahue’s show. “With the war looming, MSNBC president Erik Sorenson and Phil Griffin decided to take him off the air “to make way for 24/7 war coverage.”


On October 16, 2002, the Iraq War resolution was enacted just weeks before a mid-term election. Maddow says in the documentary, “The margin is more than 3-1 in the Senate. It’s more than 2-1 in the House. The president is officially given a free hand.” In fact, there was a 90-page classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that cited dubious intelligence on “aluminum tubes, the yellowcake uranium purchase and mobile weapons labs.” The document contained dissents that suggested evidence was weak or even wrong. But only about a half dozen senators actually read the NIE.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle, appears in the film to discuss the vote. “We were two months out from an election, and no one — Republican, Democrat, independent — ever wants to be viewed as weak on national security.” It is quite a weak mea culpa, especially when compared to what Republican Representative Walter Jones says about his vote:

If I had read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, I probably would have been — have done myself a favor by being better informed on the intelligence rather than listening to the administration…

…In my heart, I knew that a no to the authority for the president was the right vote, but yet I was not strong enough to vote my conscience…

…I was more concerned about the politics in my decision, rather than what is right, and what is wrong.  I have prayed to God many times that he would forgive me for sending his children to die in a war that never had to happen…

Eighty-two Democrats in the House of Representatives voted for the Iraq War resolution. Twenty-nine Democrats in the Senate, including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, voted for the resolution. Jones has developed into an anti-war voice in Congress, but isn’t it remarkable that he is the one who gives the mea culpa in the documentary? Where is the Senate Democrat or House Democrat atoning for his or her role in making war possible?

Given the criminality of what the Bush administration did, it is shameful that none of the players involved have suffered consequences and David Corn makes this point, “A lot of people who purposely used extreme rhetoric to gin up populous support for the war, there have been no consequences for them.”

What unfolded was not just a result of mistakes or failures. High-ranking administration officials from Cheney to Wolfowitz to Douglas Feith consciously lied and engaged in deception so they could have a war. The war killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, killed more than four thousand US soldiers and destroyed a country by exploding tensions between factions that continue to violently fight each other today.

Ten years on, it is appropriate to recount what happened, to remind Americans that what happened was wrong and there are criminals from the Bush administration who should have been held accountable in some way. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Congress, led by Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, shied away from accountability.

Between now and March 19, the tenth anniversary of the invasion, there should be reflection because it could happen again; maybe not a full-scale occupation but another military operation, perhaps, one involving drones. The media has not questioned Obama’s decision to wage conflict in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen. Both the Washington Post and New York Times agreed to comply with requests from the Obama administration to not report on a drone base in Saudi Arabia. Now, there’s talk of Iran and “round magnets.” There is no US war or national security operation the US media has not collectively been willing to sell and it would not be surprising to see a presidential administration successfully manipulate the media again.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."